First Impressions

By Richard Butler

Having been a big fan of the original E-M5, I was a bit disappointed when Olympus first talked us through the specs of its replacement. But that disappointment has ebbed away since the camera arrived in our offices. Picking up the camera makes much more of an impression than just hearing about it: it's a camera whose build has prompted spontaneous comments of approval from everyone who's held it.

Like the original E-M5, the Mark II is a durable little camera.

Even without the 40MP mode, which I'll come back to in a moment, all sorts of little changes and refinements have been made, compared to its predecessor to make it a nicer camera to use. Little improvements like defaulting to use of the Super Control Panel and the ability to combine the level guide, histogram and highlight/shadow warnings in a single view are things we've been asking for, for some time. Add in the improved viewfinder and additional buttons, and the experience of shooting with the camera is much more significantly improved than the headline specs suggest.

Conversely, the movie specifications have been significantly boosted but the results are a little underwhelming. The higher bitrate compression options, addition of 60p capability, flip-out screen and focus peaking made it seem like the M5 II would make a solid video camera. However, like previous Olympus cameras, the output isn't nearly as detailed or crisp as we'd expect from the best 1080p footage. That said, it may be that the excellent 5-axis image stabilization means more users can get really solid, if not pro-grade, results out of the camera.

Image quality appears essentially unchanged, compared with recent Olympuses, which is no bad thing.

As usual, I find I prefer to turn the noise filter (noise reduction) off on all but the highest ISO images.

45mm lens
ISO 6400
1/125 sec

Also helping in this respect, the camera's focus peaking system is really good - doing a better job than most of correctly highlighting the highest-contrast regions prominently enough that you can see them. Too often we encounter cameras that either highlight everything or show a very subtle edge that is hard to distinguish from noise-induced highlighting errors elsewhere in the scene. This will help anyone using non-native lenses as well as videographers.

The more I dig into it, the more I'm left with the impression of a camera that's been redesigned from the ground up, rather than an iteration of an existing design. From a physical point of view, it's an even nicer camera to use than its predecessor. Both the viewfinder and rear screen feature much higher resolution panels, giving a more lifelike shooting experience and every surface of the camera has been redesigned, as well as the underlying structure. The buttons are nicer to use and the level of customization means I can access all the features I regularly want access to.

Here's fun: after a week-or-so of using the E-M5 II, these are the settings I'm currently applying to the camera.
Control Function:
2x2 Switch Mode 6: Standard Mode / Movie Mode
DoF Preview Focus Peaking
Fn2/Multi-Function Multi-Function
Fn3/EVF switch One-touch manual WB
Fn4/HDR Fr: ISO Re: WB
I found I preferred to use the 2x2 control switch to quickly engage video mode. If I then add Focus Peaking to the depth-of-field preview button, I can quickly access the features I need to start recording video footage.

Beyond that, changing the function of the Fn4 button gives me access to ISO and WB on the command dials, meaning I have easy access to most major settings I might want to change while shooting through the viewfinder. Most other settings I tend to control via the Super Control Panel (engaging High Res mode or changing the Gradation settings - neither of which can be assigned to buttons).

Time will tell whether I have more pressing uses for the remaining buttons but for now I feel this setup outs most of the things I need within easy reach.

We know a lot of people don't like clip on flashguns but the one included with the E-M5 II might do something to change that. It's the first we've seen with a head that rotates and tilts, allowing the same control as a full-size aftermarket accessory flash. This, combined with its ability to remotely control and trigger Olympus's RC offboard flashes, makes it considerably more flexible that any built-in flash, which might make up for the inconvenience of having to carry a separate unit around.

Then, of course, there's the high resolution multi-shot mode. It's certainly clever. We're particularly impressed by the option that allows you to add a delay between shots so that your strobes can recycle if you're working in a studio: it suggests a considerable degree of thought has been put into it. Its real-world applications are limited by its sensitivity to motion but even working within these restrictions it's a lovely thing to have access to.

This shot shows a bit of what the high res mode can and can't do (it's not the sort of thing Olympus recommends using it for). The landscape in the background really shows the benefits of the high resolution mode, but don't expect a living subject to stay still enough for you to shoot them in 40MP worth of detail.

Click here for a single shot, 16MP version, of the same scene.

Photo: Barnaby Britton

Sadly, even if you use an image stabilized lens, there's no way of stabilizing the High Res mode, so you'll need a tripod as well as a stationary subject. Equally it would have been nice to gain a four-shot, 16MP mode that offered Foveon-like full color resolution images, but I'm not going to criticize a pretty cool new feature for not offering something that I hadn't even thought about until I played with this camera.

As with any camera this complex, it requires a considerable amount of time to learn every feature and tune it to your tastes, but in general I felt it was much closer to being optimized, out-of-the-box, than previous Olympuses have been. The only apparent glitch I've encountered so far is that peaking seems to switch itself off as soon as you press any other button or enter a menu, so it's worth assigning to an easily-accessible button. Most of the time, though, the camera behaves exactly how you'd expect.

The amount of new design and engineering that's gone into the E-M5 II is disguised by how similar it looks to its predecessor. Yet under the skin it seems every aspect has been reassessed and, where necessary, modified: our first impressions are of a camera that's better in every significant way. Indeed if you put the two cameras side-by-side, you realize that even its looks have been totally re-worked. If anything, the E-M5 II is even prettier.